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Disability In The Workplace Through A Deaf Prism

  January 9, 2017   

By Joanna Wootten, Inclusion Consultant

First of all, a little bit of information about me. I was born deaf. I had a cochlear implant 3 years ago. I originally worked as a lawyer before moving to the not-for profit sector. I currently work as a consultant advising businesses around age and disability as a business issue, and my main ongoing client is Sainsbury’s. I am a qualified executive coach.

How I have talked about my deafness in the workplace has changed over the years.

Here are some top tips from someone who has been around the deaf block.

Accept you have a disability as defined by the Equality Act 2010

OK, you may not like the word ‘disabled’. Lots of other people don’t either. But the reality is that, from a process viewpoint, that is why you can ask employers to do things differently. It is worth knowing the legal backdrop – it is a tool which means that you can get on in the workplace.

Get to grips with it and then move on.

Also, if you are looking for a new job, it can be worth keeping an eye out for employers who say they are keen to recruit disabled people.

Control your story

It is worth practising how you talk about your disability at work. Why? Well, you can’t let the HR team control your story! You can still decide how you want your disability to be described, and how you want your story to be told at work. Give people the language that you want them to use. E.g. “Joe Popat is hearing impaired” “Joe Popat uses sign language interpreters”. What do you want them to say? What do you feel comfortable with?

Think about how confident you are talking about your disability

When you talk to your family – how do you describe it? Do you just focus on asking them to turn the subtitles on? Do you actually talk about how much you can technically hear? What about when you talk to your friends? What do you describe? Do you talk about your hearing aid batteries or about how wonderful FaceTime / Skype are?

What do you think your employer needs to know?

From a practical viewpoint, what do you need to tell them? That you require communication support for meetings with 3 or more people? It may be worth practising. But try not to worry too much – it doesn’t have to be perfect. After all, if you say something and then think: “Oooh, I wish I had said X” - don’t worry, you can always send a follow up email. This will help you control the message at work.


If you aren’t sure what will help you at work, it’s worth experimenting. I know that my preferences have changed over the years. I used to use sign language interpreters regularly as I was always meeting different clients on their premises. I now am usually based in the same building with reliable WiFi, and often have to take meeting notes, so I prefer using remote speech to text reporters. You may want to consider telling other people that you are trying out something, so that they are aware. You don’t have to make a big deal of it e.g. “I thought I would try using a video sign language interpreting service for our regular team meeting. Unfortunately, today the WiFi wasn’t working well and the picture went at one point, and I missed the bit when you were talking about Geneva. Can you tell me about that please?”.

It’s not just about you – how do you think they may feel?

Compare these two emails:

“Dear Boss, I have Parkinson’s and you have to make adjustments for me”

“Dear Boss, I have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I didn’t tell you as I was getting used to the idea, and it wasn’t having an impact on me at work. However, I am now finding it difficult to use public transport, particularly in the rush hour as I usually can’t get a seat. To solve this issue, I am applying to Access to Work for funding for taxis so that I can continue coming to work at 9am”.

Which email would you rather receive?

Think about how you can make it easy for your colleagues to work with you. Do they have the information that they need? For example, do they know that you need to sit in a particular place?

Melt down

You will have rubbish days. You will have days when everything seems to go wrong and it all seems too much. That’s OK – most people will experience that. When I was a trainee solicitor, I had a bad day every 2 or 3 months. That’s become less frequent as I have got more experienced. Having said that, if this is happening to you every week, you may need to change jobs!

Final words?

Keep an open mind, sometimes you won’t get it right – but you will become more comfortable in talking about your disability at work. Just keep practising and hang in there!

These stories are tagged with: being open being open deafness deafness Openness Statement Openness Statement